'Speed Racer': out of gas

Wachowski Brothers' movie tries for a family-values focus but veers into frenetic, sometimes cheesy effects.

Don't see the new Wachowski Brothers movie "Speed Racer" if your memories of that '60s Japanese cartoon show are less than fond. Also don't see it if you'd rather play a video game than be trapped inside one. And don't go expecting a "Matrix"-style experience.

Maybe that last warning is not quite accurate. The Wachowskis, of course, were the masterminds behind the "Matrix" trilogy and, try as they might to reverse course and make a candy-colored family-entertainment lalapalooza, they're still courting nightmarishness. "Speed Racer" is so garishly straightlaced that it's positively surreal.

I was not one of those boomers who spent my dewy years parked in front of the TV screen shouting, "Go, Speed Racer, go!" I would like to think that this defect in my upbringing does not disqualify me from passing judgment on a movie that certainly does not need my help on its run to riches.

But the last time I checked, a family entertainment movie was supposed to entertain the entire family. For the sake of their kids, most parents have learned to endure the pap that passes for family fare these days, but the 135-minute "Speed Racer" may have set the bar on what parents can endure.

The irony is that "Speed Racer" prides itself on being a movie about bedrock family values. The family that races together stays together – sort of. And the Racer family lives and dies for racing. Pops (John Goodman) is a race-car designer, and his two eldest sons, Rex (Scott Porter) and Speed (Emile Hirsch), are demons on the track. Another son, the pipsqueak Spritle (Paulie Litt, who looks like Goodman's Mini-Me), cheers them on. Even their obstreperous pet chimp Chim-Chim gets in on the act. (Can a chimp be a ham?) Mom (Susan Sarandon) is the calming influence holding everything together.

When a big bad racing tycoon (Roger Allam, resembling a cross between Christopher Hitchens and Al Gore), tries to snare Speed's talents and is rebuffed, the Day-Glo movie suddenly gets all moralistic. Speed goes it alone, the little guy who refuses to knuckle under to corporate interests.

This is a rather odd message coming from a big-studio Hollywood movie designed to kick off a $1 billion franchise. What's even odder is that the Wachowskis think their bug-eyed Grand Prix hoo-ha functions as a fable about the importance of family. For that to be the case, you'd have to accept the Racers as something more than a gaggle of human-scaled cartoon characters. The Wachowskis are reaching for "heart" in this movie – a quality that was noticeably AWOL in the "Matrix" movies – but their own hearts aren't in it. They're too wound up by the new Sony F-23 HD cameras and the (sometimes cheesy) CGI effects.

"Speed Racer" is so hyperfrenetic that, in the end, you wonder if the Wachowskis aren't trying to pull off an elaborate hoax – a deranged techno fantasia posing as retro-ish family fare. Grade: C- (Rated PG, for sequences of action, some violence and language.)

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